Of course, most of my “real” blues activity for Joe Fields took place after he had purchased the secular Savoy catalogue from the boys at Arista Records (Clive Davis hadn’t a clue). Joe embarked upon a major program of releases from that label’s archive on Savoy Jazz Records. (The religious part of the Savoy catalogue was purchased separately by Malaco Records in MS, who have unfortunately done little with that material.) I had previously written some liner notes for a rather odd blues assemblage on two LPs that Bob Porter had cobbled together. Because of that, I wanted more control over any further projects so that they would be more “organic”, “appropriate”, and meaningful. Hubris… maybe.
The first, I think, was a straight release of the Carolina Slim LP (Ed Harris) that had appeared on the Sharp label, one that Bastin might put into the “soddingly rare” category. Joe had a bit of paper-work, plus a photo, in his files, plus other researchers had by then gleaned information concerning Mr. Harris from other sources. One item that I was then prevented from mentioning in the notes was a copy of a letter from Herman Lubinsky (O&S # 34) to the Sheriff of the county in North Carolina from which Harris had come. Essentially, Herman wanted to know to know from the sheriff if there was anything that he should know about “his” nigger. This surprises me not at all as I found Lubinsky to be a racist of the first order when I briefly and unproductively met him in the seventies. His regard for African American artists made the Klan look good. The Carolina Slim release was good, but not “new”, so I decided to go to work.
A goodly number of ideas jumped out at me as I perused the Ruppli discography of Savoy (I’d had my Atlantic experience to refer to (O&S # 15 – and had supplied Michel Ruppli with what I had found), possibilities that I passed on to Joe: He, in turn, sent me cassette tapes of stuff I’d not heard (including some not listed, plus a few Paramount tests that came along with the Varsity masters!). Among the ideas were: Billy Wright (who I had interviewed in Atlanta), T. J. Fowler, Wilbert Harrison, and, of course, Brownie McGhee. Brownie’s stuff was recorded for the Black marketplace and of great interest to me as a result. There were also possible anthologies… the Southeast (of course), Detroit, New Orleans, New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, for starters. At that point in time, all was programmed for LP release, which meant two batches of seven or eight cuts for each side of the album. Joe had some other promotional photos in the Savoy paperwork that he had inherited – this produced the photo of Carolina Slim, in fact. I did some asking around myself, did the research and the liner notes so that a number of really nice LPs resulted.
For Wilbert Harrison, my friend Doug Price researched the NYC telephone directories and gave me a number… wrong Wilbert Harrison! I finally got in touch with Tina Mayfield (widow of Percy) – Wilbert was then based out on the Left Coast and she was managing him. She gave me permission to interview him (also supplied his phone number!) and I talked with him about his career up through the Savoy sides at some length. My main regret was in not going beyond those parameters while I had the opportunity, for I never got back to him for the next installment in his story. (I still think he calls out “Muskrat” to Jimmy Spruill on “Kansas City”… as in “Muskrat Ramble”. Good as any other possibility I’ve heard about!) The last finalized project was T. J. Fowler… Eddie Kirkland had told me of Fowler’s death, so I had to work through secondary sources already in print. Both the Harrison and the Fowler should have had added banners on their covers, though – “featuring Mickey Baker” on the former and “featuring Calvin Frazier” on the latter – to underscore their respective presences, facts that collectors want to know. My mistake. (I actually do not have a copy of the Fowler release, save the cassettes I worked from at the time. Things were in a bit of a state of disarray on many fronts at that point.) But the music was great!
Brownie McGhee recorded extensively for Savoy in the forties and early fifties in his continuing career as a Black recording artist, one that was then overlapping with his burgeoning “folk” career. The first project with his music was “Brownie & the Tenors”, focusing on his recordings with various sax players in his recording band. I think it was a most successful album and there were others I had planned to come. One was to focus on Brownie with piano-based bands rather than saxophones. There was plenty of material in the discography.
There was one problem with that idea… missing masters. Now I dearly loved the sainted Mike Leadbitter, but, unlike the Pope, he wasn’t infallible. In this case, it was his mistaken statement in his discography that the LPs on Savoy MG 14049 and Sharp 2003 were identical, a statement that made its way into Ruppli as well. They are totally different albums and I have no idea who fed him this misinformation… I have copies of them both and I know what’s on each. The Sharp album consists of three four-tune sessions from 1948 and 1950 and was produced using the original session master tapes! This was not unusual policy back in those days… cut, leader, and splice, with no safety copies. That is why the three sessions are missing from the Savoy secular holdings. Except for the Carolina Slim original LP (known to us all) and the McGhee/Terry (so billed), all Sharp album releases were religious in nature. Since Leads had said that Sharp 2003 = Savoy MG 14049, nobody thought to pull the Sharp LP tapes (as they had the Slim) when the sale was finalized. So in all likelihood, the tapes of those three sessions as two LP master sides now reside in a warehouse in Jackson, MS with all the Savoy gospel stuff, lost in the Lord!
In many ways, the Billy Wright album was my favorite, especially the song “Four Cold, Cold Walls”, as fine an old-fashioned vaudeville blues number as you’d ever want to hear. The various anthologies never happened (single artist LPs did so much better than collections, unlike the situation now with CDs – sound familiar?) as Joe Fields sold the Savoy material to Japanese Denon for a packet. That allowed him to buy Trix masters from me and Landmark material from Orrin Keepnews, but that’s another story (O&S # 37, 54, 55). Just to prove that what goes around comes around, though, Orrin Keepnews has been working with the Savoy stuff for Denon in Atlanta of late! There’s still some gold in them thar hills!
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM